Caoshan's Reality Body


INTRODUCTION. Those who have some wisdom can understand by means of metaphors. But if you come to where there is no possibility of comparison or similitude, how then can you explain it to them?

CASE. Caoshan asked elder De, “It has been said, ‘The Buddha’s true reality body is like space: it manifests form in response to beings, like the moon in water.’ How do you explain the principle of response?”
De said, “Like an ass looking into a well.”
Caoshan replied, “You said a lot indeed, but you said only eighty percent.”
De said, “What about you, teacher?”
Caoshan said, “Like the well looking at the ass.”

VERSE. The ass looks at the well,
The well looks at the ass.
Wisdom is all-embracing
Purity pervades, with abundance.
The seal leaves an impression, but who discerns the seal?
In the house, no books are kept.
The loom threads aren’t strung by anyone.
The shuttle works by itself.
The pattern goes up and across,

This is Day Four of our spring sesshin, and everybody is doing a wonderful job. In particular, the people who are attending for the first time have one remarkable achievement to show for all their efforts, and that is, they’re still here. I should add that this has not always been the case.

Typically, it’s Day Three when people leave. People will come into dokusan on Day One and say, “I’m having a little trouble.” Then they’ll come into dokusan on Day Two and say, “I’m not sure why I ‘m here.” In response, I’ll tell them, “Well, everybody feels that way at first. Don’t get too wrapped up in your thoughts.” Then, on Day Three, usually in the evening, I’ll hear the noise of their tires on the gravel as the car drives past the zendo.

Believe me, this has happened many, many times. You just never know who’s going to be here by the end of the whole thing. The fact that you’re still here is really wonderful, and quite impressive. Please just keep going with your wonderful determination.

Zen practice is a rather complicated affair. We get up every morning, for example, and recite the Shin Jin Mei or, in Chinese, the Hsin Hsin Ming--the Verses on the Heart-Mind. Basically, the spirit of those verses is, “Don’t expect anything. Don‘t try to achieve anything.” As the author of the verses, the third Great Ancestor of Chinese Zen Seng T’san writes, “The wise man strives to no goals/But the foolish man fetters himself.”

Actually, those lines describe just one part of Zen practice, one aspect, but not the whole thing. In Zen practice, there are really two aspects. One aspect is being the donkey and one aspect is being the well. Right now, this might not make much sense, but give me a moment. After a little while, the koan might be clearer. Or possibly not.

First of all, you have to make an effort. Even though Seng T’san says, “The wise man strives to no goals,” we actually have a goal, and it’s the realization of Buddha Nature. Not the possession of Buddha Nature–we have that already--but the realization.

We have a goal, and Seng T’san had a goal too, but he’s speaking from a particular perspective. When we come to sesshin, we usually don’t occupy that perspective right from the start. Most of us come to sesshin because we want to wake up. If we’re honest, we might say to ourselves, “I know I’m not enlightened yet.” And how do we know? Well, before you came here you might have been thinking, “I’m depressed.” Or, “I’m unhappy.” Or, “I’m nervous.” Or, “I’m fearful.” Or, “I’m discontent.” Whatever. People come to Zen practice because they feel that something’s not right with their lives or something’s missing, and they have the courage and the clarity to admit this to themselves. They know they’re not Buddha yet.

Now, it’s a real problem when you meet people who think they are indeed enlightened although they’re clearly not. The world actually contains a fair number of such people who have fantasies about themselves–fantasies. Fortunately, most people are able to assess their situation accurately, and they say to themselves, “I know I’m not enlightened yet, but I want to be.” So, you come to sesshin and you sit on the cushion, and you have to make an effort, in spite of what Seng T’san says.

It’s like in archery. In order to hit the target, you have to try. You have to pull the string back, and you have to strain your arm a bit. At one time, I myself was quite taken with archery. When I was about 20 years old, my future father-in-law gave me a bow and some arrows, and I got a straw bail and put it behind the house where I was living. I could just spend hours shooting these little sticks into the target. I don’t know why, but I found archery absolutely enthralling. I still do.

The interesting thing about it is that you definitely have to make an effort to pull the string because the bow is not easy to draw. A good bow is quite hard to draw, in fact, and when you pull the string back with one hand, you have to hold the bow steady with the other. If your arm wavers at all, the arrow will go wildly off.

When you draw the string, that’s the “trying” part, the “effort” part. You have to draw the string and hold the bow steady. Then you let go, and the arrow goes shooooop! And it might or might not hit the target as you intended

These two aspects of archery are like the two aspects of Zen practice. The first is ki, drawing the bow. Then there is kyo, letting the arrow go. Ki and kyo. Trying and then letting go are the two aspects of Zen practice. If you come to sesshin and you just say to yourself, “The wise man strives to no goals,” nothing will happen. If you are just sitting on the cushion and gathering wool–thinking thoughts, dreaming dreams--then nothing will happen. Of course, no one here has been doing that. I’m happy to report that everyone’s been making an excellent effort.

But if a person did sit on the cushion without trying, there would be no possibility of any change. And indeed, there are people who are so afraid of trying, or so confused, that they don’t make a serious effort. They don’t even come to sesshin. They read a few lines of Zen philosophy and they say, “Well, I’m already Buddha, so why go to sesshin? I’m already enlightened. As a Buddha, I don’t need sesshin.” Ok, great. But if you’re honest, you will admit, “I'm not Buddha yet. I have some place I want to go in my life. There’s something I still want to realize.” Once you admit this to yourself, you’re stuck, and you have to try. And you should try. You should do your very best.

Drawing the arrow creates tension, no getting around it. There’s a tension to drawing the arrow, a tension to trying. You’re sitting on the cushion eight hours a day, saying to yourself, MU MU MU MU! You want something to happen. And you should. If you want to wake up, you must be willing to put yourself on the line. The more frequently you draw your mind back into the blankness of MU, the more progress you’re going to make. Yes, there is such a thing as “progress.” There’s no question about it. If you’re diligent and you keep pulling the mind back to that blankness, it’s much more likely that the universe will respond to you.

By the way, the Buddha himself believed in trying. His name–Siddhartha–also refers to archery. It means, “He who hits the mark.” Throughout the Pali sutras and the Agamas–the Sanskrit Sutras used by the Mahayana tradition–the Buddha praises diligence and skillful effort. Trying! Even though the Buddha had lived numerous past lives of total compassion and helpfulness to others, he still had to practice diligently for six years prior to his Dai Kensho. As you may know, the Buddha was raised to be a warrior-chieftan. He received training in archery, riding, swordsmanship and so on, and he sometimes described meditation practice using terms taken from his military training. Of course, the Buddha turned his back on the soldier’s life; he rejected it completely. But he never rejected the idea of self-cultivation--trying. In fact, the last thing he said to his community was "Keep working hard to achieve your liberation."

You should try, and if you do, then the arrow can go where it wants to go freely. It will sail out and go wherever it goes. Sometimes it’s a palpable hit. Sometime you hit the target as you intended, and when that happens, it’s just so obvious and wonderful.

When the arrow hits the bull’s eye and we know it, that’s a marvelous feeling. For example, one person came into the dokusan room last night and said, “I felt today like my body was huge. It reached up into the sky and went down to the earth. It was amazing.” This experience is not an illusion, but a deep encounter with Mu. This person really hit the target, and it’s wonderful when that happens. When you enter Mu-shin deeply, your experience of your own body can change dramatically.

Another person came in and said, “I’ve been feeling like I’m giving birth. I’m having actual tremors and contractions. It’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s just like I’m giving birth.” Again, this is a deep encounter with Mu.

You draw the bow and you let the arrow fly, and it goes shoooop and hits, and sometimes it hits the target as you intended, landing squarely in the bulls’ eye. Amazing! Of course, as someone who teaches Zen, I’m very happy when people come into dokusan with reports like these. One person felt his body reaching up into the sky and down into the earth. Another came in and said, “I feel like I’m giving birth and I’m shaking all over.” When I get reports like these, I say to myself, “Things are going well!” These are just two examples, however. Other people have had similar experiences over the last three days.

But the thing is, sometimes Zen practice doesn’t work out like that. In fact, even if you have had such an experience, it might not recur the next day. You might get up in the morning, and you sit down on the cushion and you think, “OK, here I go again. I’m ready to enter a great body reaching up into the sky and down into the earth.” [Laughter] But then, nothing happens. Or you might wake up thinking, “OK! Get the maternity ward ready. I’m going to give birth again!” But nothing happens. No cramps, and no baby. And then you might think, “What a disappointment! I came to this darn sesshin and now it’s all a wash, a big flop.”

If you think about the wonderful experience you’ve already had, however, please notice that you weren’t expecting it to happen. Expecting nothing in particular, you just sat on the cushion. You called Mu. You faced the blankness, and then this weird thing happened. When you came into dokusan later, you tried to put the strange experience into words, but it was so weird that you had a hard time describing it. The experience was not what you planned at all.

If you practice with the desire for these kinds of exceptional experiences, that’s good and that’s bad. There a balance in practice. You have to try, but then you have to let go. In the cases I’ve just been talking about, one person was just sitting and then, “Boom!” she entered this giant body, and in the other case, the person was just sitting, and then, “Boom!”--having a baby. And by the way, having a baby sounds to me like a very good description of how it can feel to open up to Mu.

The thing is, neither person expected these things to happen, and if they go back to the cushion the next day with the desire to repeat the experience, then they’ve already created a blockage in their minds. Once they form a fixed mental image of some desired outcome, they can’t draw the bow and send the arrow out freely because they no longer trust the process. They already have a goal in mind, and the process has become just an instrument or tool of their personal will. But it should be the other way around. We should become the servants of the process.

Now, we do have a goal, but it has to be sort of vague. We’re trying to realize enlightenment, true enough. But if you have too many preconceptions, you can’t have an experience of fundamental reality. And if you’ve had such an experience and you hold on to the mental image of it, that creates a big problem.

I have to confess to you something. I was young during the Sixties. You probably knew that already! In the Sixties, people used drugs. I assume that some people still do. The other day, when we came out the Lucy Stone Hall after the evening sit, the air was redolent with the smell of marijuana. So, I assume that some students still smoke marijuana on college campuses. [Laughter]

I strongly urge you not to do it, however--not to use drugs of any kind. And I’m not saying this as a joke or with an insincere wink. I’m not against drug-use because I should be, but because I truly mean it. Drugs completely mess up your practice

Imagine giving LSD to a little baby. You unscrew the top of the baby’s bottle and you drop in some “acid.” Then you give it to the baby. That would be horrific, right? To do that to an innocent little baby would be a terrible crime. No sane person would want to risk doing such damage to the baby’s tender mind. So why would you do it to yourself? You might say, “Well, I’m not that baby anymore.” But I think that this attitude is mistaken–in fact, it’s part of the illness that sesshin is designed to cure. You are still that innocent baby! That baby’s tender mind is still there, at the core of your mind. We call it “True Nature.” Please treat that baby mind with the greatest tenderness.

At any rate, when I was in college, LSD was very popular along with marijuana, and everybody was reading this book by Aldous Huxley entitled The Doors of Perception. Huxley was a British novelist from a very famous, highbrow family of intellectuals. At some point, Huxley dropped some “acid” and basically became a hippy, and then he wrote The Doors of Perception, in which he said that LSD was the greatest thing in the world. Huxley predicted that its use would transform humanity. Obviously, it hasn’t. But at the time I read the book and said, “Hey, I’m ready!”

If you drop acid, it’s not very good for your mind generally, but one of the damaging things it does, as the chemical enters your system, is to build up to a peak experience. And in those peak experiences, you can feel that you’re in hell if it’s a “bad trip,” and those are truly horrible. Or your trip can be like this: “Everything is one! My hands are purple! It must be God! I see God!” I did this a couple times. The first time, I had the “I see God. It’s all one!” experience. The second time I had the usual “bad” acid trip in which I thought I was losing my mind and wanted to go to the hospital. After that, I vowed I would never use acid again. And I didn’t. In fact, I don’t even drink now.

The point is that even my one “blissed out” trip was very addictive in the sense that when I started doing Zen practice later, I kept wanting to repeat that peak experience. I wanted to have a “mystical ecstacy.” You might say that I wanted to be a giant whose body reached up into the sky. Or, you might say that I wanted to have the experience of giving birth. Those sorts of experiences would have delighted me.

I should pause here to add the experiences we have in Zen are different from the ones people have on acid trips. Acid visions are illusions–in fact, they are illusions times 100–whereas our experiences on the cushion bring us closer to reality. Of course, reality is not always what we expect it to be. It may not seem “normal'' to find that your body reaches up into the sky and down into the earth, but that doesn’t mean the experience is false. The truth is that you are not really separate from the sky and the earth, or from anything else, and as your sense of connectedness deepens, such moments are bound to occur.

But the point is that I kept craving those peak experiences. To make matters worse, I had read stories about famous Zen masters putting their shoes on their heads and jumping out windows, and so on. In the Zen stories, some teacher slaps a monk and, Boom! the monk has enlightenment. I wanted the same kind of thing to happen to me, and that desire really ruined my practice because I was constantly trying to have a peak experience on the cushion. I was constantly straining to have a breakthrough or ecstatic insight.

This expectation is a trap because a lot of meditation involves learning to accept the next moment without anything special happening. A lot of being good at meditation is just being able to accept the next moment. You watch the breath, and you watch the breath, and you watch the breath, and nothing special happens.

At first you can be bored by this. Little by little, however, you begin to feel very happy, very harmonious, just by being in the moment. Someone came into dokusan room last night and said, “Nothing special is going on, but I feel really great.” When I heard this, I thought, “Wonderful!” So long as we keep looking for the peak experience, we have misunderstood how progress actually gets made.

It’s so important to be happy with nothing! It’s so important to be content with the moment just as it is. When you don’t expect any event in particular, amazing things can happen. The universe can respond to you! When you’re craving a certain kind of outcome, however, you just create unnecessary tension and disappointment, and you can block yourself.

As I said earlier, I think Zen practice is a little like archery. We draw the bow–and you have to draw the bow–and then you let the arrow go. But then you look at where the arrow has gone, and you paint the bull’s eye around it. This is Zen practice. What you do is to learn from the arrow. Wherever the arrow goes is the bull’s eye. Sometimes, people have selected a bull’s eye and try to hit it, and they know in advance where the arrow will go, or they think they do.

But what we Zen people do is fire off the arrow and then walk up and say, “Hmmm,” and we paint the target around it. So it’s bull’s eye every time! That’s the beauty of my system. [Laughter] Now you can see why I liked archery so much. In Olympic archery, this method would not be acceptable, but in Zen, it’s very important. Everything that happens is Buddha, everything that happens is Buddha, everything that happens is Buddha.

A lot of the time, people can’t answer their koan because they are trying too hard. They can’t learn from the arrow. Someone will come to see me in dokusan and say, “Oh I haven’t made any progress on my koan today because I just keep thinking about the argument I had with my husband.” Hmmm, could the argument be related to your koan?

Often your True Nature is pointing you right at the answer but you don’t notice it because you’re looking for something else. A person might come into dokusan and say, “No luck with my koan today.” And I might say, “Well, just tell me about what’s happening.” And they might say, “ I keep trying to focus on the koan but then I just have this strange feeling that my face is disappearing. I have to keep pushing that sensation out of the way.” In fact, this kind of sensation is quite significant–it’s a marker of the person’s movement into deep samadhi, deep meditative concentration.

A lot of Zen practice requires learning from where the arrow actually goes. And that means having the patience to just look, look, look. If you sit on the cushion, and you call Mu, and you face the blankness, sooner or later something will start to happen. The universe will respond to you. It may not be what you expect. Maybe you just hear the sound of the wind in trees and feel this tremendous sense of “being home” again. You might think, “Well, that’s trivial,” but are you so sure? Your True Nature has just pointed you toward something. Being receptive to what’s actually happening is a big part of Zen practice.

When we practice Zen, at first, we think that we’re trying to reach True Nature, and we believe that it’s very difficult and there are all these obstacles in the way. In a certain sense, that’s true. But another way to think about it is to say that our True Nature is trying to communicate with us all the time. In fact, it is communicating with us all the time, but we’re not receptive. It’s actually the case that True Nature is sending us signals all the time, but our self-consciousness trips us up.

If you’re watching your breath or you’re calling Mu, and you’re facing the blankness, then you’re already “there.” Then the problem may be that you’re blocking with your expectations. The most typical way that people block is by analyzing too much in a self-reflective mode. As soon as you start thinking or analyzing, you create a distance between yourself and the experience. When you start using ideas or language, you always separate yourself to some degree.

We need language, but it creates a serious problem. Language is fixed, but experience isn’t. When we have a truly new experience, language can close it up. If we’re not careful, language can erase exactly what makes the experience unique. Language tries to bring us closer to the object, but it can make the object disappear. After a while, all we have left is an empty word.

In a similar way, thinking steps back from experience and looks at it from a distance. This is the method of the philosopher. Ordinary people don’t often behave in this way. They just go about their lives. When they want to eat, they eat. When they want to read, they just read. When they go to the movies, they just go to the movies., They don’t think; they just do. A philosopher comes along, however, and he asks, “Why do we go to the movies anyway?” He would never accept the answer that we go because we want to. No, the philosopher has a theory, and he uses it to explain ordinary reality. He might say, “We go to the movies because we’re trying to escape from the world.” And then he writes a big book and he goes on the philosophy circuit. Everybody will say, “Oh, that’s such an interesting idea.” The philosopher steps outside of ordinary life and thinks about it from a distance. You can do that on the cushion too. You might ask yourself,“Why is this happening?” But this creates a separation. We all do this, so I’m not criticizing you. I’m just trying to point to an alternative.

The Zen way is different from philosophy because we don’t want to create a distance between ourselves and the world. We want to eliminate that distance, which is an illusion anyway. How you eliminate that distance is a little tricky, however. If you’re sitting on the cushion and you’re facing the blankness of Mu, you’re already there. But how do you express that blankness without creating a new separation? If you come into the dokusan room and you say, “I’m facing the blankness,” then you’re a million miles from unity with it. You’ve already created a separation. This is such a dilemma, so what do you do?

Please notice that the koan asks you to call MU. I always say, “Please keep calling MU.”

When you come into the dokusan room, sometimes what you have to do is not tell, but act. If your koan is MU, the best thing you can do is some action. It doesn’t matter what action, but some action. This is a way of being in the moment that doesn’t create a separation between ourselves and the world. We don’t analyze, we act.

Perhaps you’ve notice that when we do something repetitively, our self-consciousness disappears, and we can simply be aware of the moment. When you’re jogging, you don’t have to think about jogging. You don’t have to think, “Now I need to speed up.” “Now I need to slow down.” Instead, you can just give yourself over to the process. When you’re in the flow, you still have awareness, but the sense of separation disappears. This is one of the reasons people like to jog.

After you call Mu a number of times, you can achieve this same flow, this naturalness. If your koan is Mu, then you should walk into the dokusan room, focus on the blankness and do whatever your True Nature tells you to do. If your True Nature tells you to stand on your hands, and you are capable of standing on your hands, you should do it! If your True Nature says, "Clap your hands," then clap your hands. If your True Nature says, "Put your shoes on your head"--wonderful.

Even though this seems silly and ridiculous, or contrived, please try it. Little by little, you're learning how to experience the world in a different way by acting in a different way. Little by little, believe me, you will be surprised.

You know, I am a writer, not much of a writer, but I write all the time--usually in a university setting. I write articles, book reviews, and editorial reviews of other people's work. Sometimes I sit down at my word processor and I'll work for a few hours, but nothing happens. I'll read what I've written and I'll just think, "This is junk." But then, sometimes I'll start writing and this wonderful material will come out on the page, and I'll be amazed. When I read it over, I'll ask myself, "Where did this come from?" It's as though I were possessed. We Zen people would say that it came from our True Nature, our Mu-shin.

You just have to keep trying to be one with Mu through action, and then, little by little, something will come out. Just trust the process.

I have friends who are musicians and they have to practice a piece over and over again. But then, maybe every twentieth time they perform the piece, they’re divinely possessed. Suddenly, the music is just impeccable. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes, it’s just that they’re completely in the flow.

Little by little, you begin to be open to this process. You begin to be open to this beautiful life energy. You start acting from a deeper source than thinking itself.

Some of our actions come from deep within us and some of them don’t. The ones that come from the deepest part of our body we can’t understand intellectually. For example, if you need to go to bathroom, you just know it. You don’t have to have a reason. You don’t need to reflect on it intellectually. You don’t have to ask, “Do I really need to go to bathroom?" Instead, you just think, “I've got to go, and now.” And so you go. The colloquial term for this-- when we don’t want to say, “I have to go to bathroom”--is “Nature is calling.”

Nature really is calling–True Nature. You get a signal from True Nature, and it says, “Go to the bathroom!”

When you’re really hungry, you don’t have to ruminate over it. You don’t have ask, “Now, am I hungry?” You just think, “Good god, give me something to eat. I’m starving!”

These signals come from deep within the self, within the body.

Working with the Mu koan can be like that too. You’re going to get a signal and it will be just like a compulsion, like having to go to the bathroom. Someone might say, “How will I know if I have a compulsion?” That’s our philosopher friend! Well, if you have to ask, then isn’t a compulsion.

Sometimes philosophy is so ridiculous. It’s interesting that there isn’t a philosophy of going to the bathroom. There’s a philosophy of social life, of politics, and even of sexuality. But there’s no philosophy of going to the bathroom. That would be too absurd, even for philosophy.

We Zen people allow ourselves to be possessed by True Nature. Sometimes, when that happens, it feels like we’re ten feet tall or like we’re having a baby. By calling Mu–by acting–we can manifest this beautiful life energy.

I’m not saying that you can’t talk in the dokusan room. But at some point talking creates a barrier, and if you want to break through that barrier, you’ve got to act. By acting, you make yourself into a funnel for that life energy. Through action, you become like a puppet of Buddha Nature, or like an electric wire with the current flowing through it. You have to make yourself like that wire. Your job is to let the current flow through you. If the current says, “Clap your hands,” then clap your hands. If it says, “Shout Mu,” then shout Mu. Little by little, you will become a better conduit for that energy,

In time, you develop what is called Zen spontaneity. You become deeply intuitive, able to act quickly without obsessive reflection. This is something everybody can cultivate.

I’ve covered a lot of ground today without appearing to get to the koan, so let me sum up the koan for you. This will be like the Cliff Notes to the koan.

Sometimes we imagine that we’re little human beings trying to be Buddha, and in that condition, we have try very hard and be patient. When we’re in that condition, we’re like a donkey looking down into a well and seeing its face in the water. And that’s one aspect of our experience. But every once in a while, we’re possessed by True Nature, by Mu Shin–divine possession--and in that moment, we are the well looking up at the donkey. Our True Nature is Buddha.

For a lot of our life, we think that we’re humans trying to be Buddha, but if you keep practicing, one day you’ll see, really and truly, that you’re just Buddha pretending to being a human being. And that’s really cool.

If you want to know, that’s what happens in Dai Kensho. As you practice, you have all these little awakenings but you always come back to being Kurt, or Bob, or Jane. But then, one day, you realize that Jane is just a role that you’re playing. After Dai Kensho, your baseline consciousness changes. Or rather, it can change if you keep on sitting. Then, your baseline consciousness is not Kurt-mind or Jane-mind but Buddha Mind. Every once in a while, you can put on your Jane suit and go out and see people. Every once in a while, you can go out and pretend to be Bill. And nobody notices the change. They think you’re still Bill.

You are and you aren’t, right? You’re Buddha being Bill for sixty or seventy years, and then it’s time or Buddha to be somebody else. In my opinion, we get the best of both worlds. You get to be Bill or Jane and Buddha too. It’s really a wonderful situation.

So please continue to practice with diligence. Draw the bow with all your strength–your open heart. And then, of course, wherever the arrow lands is where your True Nature wants you to go. Then, just observe. Realize that this just how things have to be. Be patient and be grateful. And just keep going.

Last revised 6.27.06